Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade mayor wades into FIU expansion fight

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez El Nuevo Herald

Faced with a standoff that has lasted for years, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he wants to try to resolve the fight over where a county fair could go in order to make room for a campus expansion by Florida International University.

Gimenez said he sees no hope of FIU and the Miami-Dade Youth Fair resolving their impasse over a new home for the event, which holds a 90-year lease on the county’s Tamiami Park. FIU sits next door, wants to expand its campus onto the 87-acre fairgrounds and has pledged to pay for moving the fair elsewhere. While fair executives say they’ll consider other homes, so far the nonprofit event and FIU have mostly engaged in a public battle over which side is taking the most unreasonable position.

“We’re not getting anywhere right now,” Gimenez said Thursday. “It’s not an easy situation. The fair has certain rights that they think puts them in advantageous position. The fair doesn’t really want to move. They’re playing stall ball.”

In a meeting last week, FIU presented its plan for a location the fair has already rejected: county-owned land next to the Homestead Air Force Reserve Base. At the end of that session, Gimenez announced he was going to personally research an alternative site near the Dolphin Mall that is more appealing to the fair for its central location.

“If we got to the south, we potentially cut off the people from the north,” said Brian May, the fair’s lobbyist. “If we got to the north, we potentially cut people from the south.”

The location near Dolphin Mall centers around 70 acres owned by the state Department of Transportation off the Florida Turnpike. The area is already slated for a new park-and-ride facility servicing the Dolphin Expressway, which Gimenez said could be a plus given the fair’s use of about14,000 parking spaces when attendance peaks at night during the four-week spring event. But acquiring the site could be costly. Along with the state-owned land, a county summary from earlier this year said it “may need FIU acquisition of private property at market value, subject to willing seller(s) to meet acreage requirements.”

The fair doesn’t really want to move. They’re playing stall ball.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

FIU officials declined to be interviewed on the record, but Sandra Gonzalez-Levy, the school’s vice president for external relations, released a statement that said: “We look forward to a win-win solution so that FIU can expand. There are some good options on the table. I congratulate the Mayor and his staff for their leadership in this process.”

Gimenez already is on record supporting FIU’s expansion into the fairgrounds, and last November county voters endorsed a ballot giving the state school permission to move into Tamiami once the fair finds a new home. But the political support came with a key provision: FIU agreeing to cover all the costs Miami-Dade would incur if it exercised the early-termination clause of the fair’s lease, which has about 75 years left. Those expenses include reimbursing the nonprofit fair for millions of dollars it spent on the fairgrounds’ buildings and infrastructure, as well as providing a new site on par with the existing one.

The fair sees that provision as its primary leverage in the battle with FIU, a Miami-Dade institution and the region’s only state university. The tax-funded school has pledged $50 million for the fair’s relocation, far less than the $220 million estimate cited in a 2013 study funded by the fair, FIU and the county.

To keep costs down, FIU has floated the idea of only relocating the four-week fair itself while allowing the nonprofit that runs it to remain in the permanent buildings on the Tamiami site that houses its offices, and private-event and expo business. So far, the fair has rejected that concept, saying it needs a single home base to remain viable.

The latest skirmish involves 127 acres of county-owned land outside Homestead’s city limits. It sits about 20 miles south of the fair’s current home next to FIU’s main campus off Coral Way and SW 107th Avenue. In Gimenez’s private meeting last week with fair and FIU officials, the school offered to help turn the new fairgrounds into a commercial and educational center with a focus on farming. Among the ideas for the “Agribusiness Incubator”: agroecology aimed at locally grown products, biofuels research and programs on crop diseases.

“We see the Fair’s relocation as a significant economic development initiative for our community that aligns with the Fair’s traditional roles and with the key drivers of South Dade — agriculture and tourism,” FIU wrote in its presentation. The school behind South Beach’s popular Wine and Food Festival also is offering to create a culinary event at the new fairgrounds and establish an FIU Kitchen Lab to help “low-income immigrant food entrepreneurs.”

Gimenez’s office received an advanced copy of the presentation and sent it to fair executives before the Sept. 17 meeting. In a Sept. 16 letter to Michael Spring, the top Gimenez aide assigned to the FIU-expansion issue, fair President Robert Hohenstein wrote: “The site that is the subject of FIU’s report was studied and rejected years ago. We trust that Florida International University will not publicly proclaim that there is anything new about the study of this location.”